Cuba.. finally! Phew, after a short stop over in Amsterdam, we finally made it to Havana..Total journey time plus stop over from London Heathrow was around 12 hours. A bit of a wait for baggage to come through, but once out, there was no issue at all connecting with my driver. First I needed to change some money: I had read up on the 2 different currencies in use- the Cuban peso (CUP) and the Cuban Convertible peso (CUC), with the latter being used by foreigners and the conversion rate being 1 CUC = 25 CUP. Once that was done, we had a short drive to the hotel in Havana central (Habana Centro) this took less than half an hour: my first impressions were that Havana was like any other thriving metropolis, with lots of people milling around, cars both old and new: I had only expected to see classic cars, but there were modern cars as well, very good roads and nothing out of the ordinary. The heat though, yes, the heat was intense, 32 degrees C, it was a sizzling welcome to the Caribbean!
My hotel was in a prime location, just a few metres from Parque Central. This provided great views of the city from my room on the 7th floor and meant that I was just a 5 minute walk from Capitolio, one of Havana’s many monuments, several theatres and historic hotels. However, what I was mostly impressed by were the pretty, brightly coloured classic cars on offer for a tour of the city, right next to Parque Central. I imagine they would be any car lover’s dream to drive. To get a real taste of Havana I took a bus & walking tour organised by the tour company- this took us through Havana Vedado: the business district/new Havana, Havana Centro: the centre and Havana Vieja: old Havana. In old Havana, which many say is the heart of Havana, we walked through the 4 main squares: Plaza de Catedral, Plaza Vieja, Plaza de Armas and Plaza San Francisco: each square had a different layout and all had equally fascinating histories and points of interest. Our group walked through the Plaza Vieja which took us to the world famous La Bodeguita Del Medio, where the author Ernest Hemingway drank his mojitos when he lived in Havana. Across the street from there is the Ambos Mundos hotel where he famously stayed on Calle Obispo (Obispo street). We walked through Calle Obispo, one of the most famous streets in Havana, with plenty of tourists to boot. On our walk, what we could not get away from was music! there was live music all around the squares and people dancing, which was fantastic, the other thing we could not escape were hustlers or entrepreneurs as some other person put it, trying to sell us one thing or the other, from the classic car drivers offering a city tour, to rickshaw drivers and petty traders selling everything you can possibly imagine.
On the tour, we also drove to the Plaza de la Revolución in Vedado, which is enormous, it was the site of many of Fidel Castro’s speeches and more recently the pope gave a speech there when he visited Cuba. It has giant memorials of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, the two most important heroes of the Cuban Revolution, It was not surprising that the Che Guevara memorial had far more interest, because he of course is the better known of the two heroes globally. On the opposite side of the square is the great, big Jose Martí, another revered national hero, monument. This area of Havana is full of government buildings, which are modern with contemporary architecture. Our tour also took us to two forts: El Morro castle, which has incredible views of the city and the La Cabaña fort, which we later went back to for a cannon ceremony, a nod to a centuries long tradition, which happens every night at 9pm. The fort also has a night market that sells souvenirs and leather goods. This was followed later in the evening by dinner back at the famous La Bodeguita del Medio.
Vinales: On my third day, I decided to take a day trip to Viñales, a 2.5 hour drive west of Havana. The drive took us from Centro through Vedado and onto Havana’s 5th avenue, also known as Miramar, where all the embassies and high commissions are located, this part of the city was visibly affluent and lush with well manicured lawns, before joining the autopista (motorway). On getting to Viñales, we were well and truly in the countryside. There were farms on either side of the roads, far fewer cars and plenty of horse drawn carriages to be seen. It was like being transported back in time.. which is saying something when in Cuba. The best views of Viñales valley I’d learnt was from the viewing deck at Hotel Los Jazmins, so that was the first stop, the valley looked postcard perfect and there was a live band playing on the viewing platform, whilst visitors enjoyed the sounds and took in the incredible views.
Moving on from here we visited the Indian caves, Cueva Del Indio which you have to walk and take a short boat ride to access. Once inside the cave, a guide pointed out all the rock formations and gave a history of the early settlers in this part of the town, it was truly fascinating to learn the history and quite cool to be underground on a boat! The entire tour going round the cave took around 20 minutes. Outside of the cave and around the settlement there were thatch huts and beautiful vegetation which was nice to explore.
We moved on from there and took a tour of a tobacco farm with a local farmer, which was interesting, we learnt the end to end process of tobacco farming and the farmer, Morro and his wife were very hospitable serving us coffee, while we checked out the farm and his other produce. He showed us how to roll cigars, let’s just say I won’t be giving up the day job soon! I bought some cigars as souvenirs however, as you do and left for our next stop. We drove past the Mural de la Prehistoria, a colourful mural painted on the Mogotes mountain, a popular Viñales landmark and stopped for photos. Our final stop was for lunch at one of the local restaurants. We had a traditional Cuban lunch, which comprised everything from the staple Congri (rice and beans), savoury lamb, grilled fish, plantains, yam, vegetables, fruits and coco yam crisps. Lunch was gut-bursting to say the least, but very nice, there was enough food for five to be shared between just two of us! All in all it was a great day well spent in Viñales, it was pretty full-on, but highly recommended! I would suggest spending at least 6-8 hours in Viñales to get a truly worthwhile experience if only visiting for a day, otherwise an overnight stay would be ideal.
It was then back to Havana for a transfer to Cienfuegos the following morning.